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Tracey Follows 

Nike's retreat into Tribalism suggests they're in trouble

Nike's retreat into Tribalism suggests they're in trouble

Nike's latest campaign has taken an issue which divides people along demographic lines and used it to create further division, writes Tracey Follows. The result will almost certainly alienate many ordinary consumers.

“This is total rubbish from Tracey”, “This couldn’t be more wrong if it tried” and ‘bollocks’ were just some of the instantaneous replies to a tweet I posted last Tuesday as the Nike print ad went viral and the company’s stock began to fall.

I was in fact pondering aloud whether Nike had made the right call using Colin Kaepernick so prominently and in such a manner that it attached his image to the idea of sacrifice and underscored it all with the Nike logo. Did they really have the moral authority to do this, I asked?

My tweet actually said that I didn’t think Nike would ride this out that easily and that they had taken an issue that was multilayered and culturally complex and commercialised and oversimplified it - and that would in the long term negatively affect their sales.

Well, that was enough to bring out scores of people who have never seen a brand tracking study in their lives, lecturing me on the value of brands. ‘This will burnish Nike’s status as a cool brand... they’re on the right side of history,” said many, including Rupert Myers, who also added: “This is smart branding... sometimes taking a side matters".

And many others, who did have marketing backgrounds, enlightened me about how sure they were that Nike would have done lots of modelling and figured all of this into their decision. Cue more disdainful replies towards me suggesting that I knew nothing about anything.

And that’s all fine, everyone has an opinion on brands, especially lifestyle brands and the way they slip in and out of culture. But what concerned me was the quality of the ‘debate’. It just wasn’t a debate.

The assumption of those who disagreed with my premise that maybe Nike had underestimated the negative effects this ad could have on sales, was that I am a moron who ‘doesn’t get it’. In fact, I do get it. In fact, what I was doing was understanding that brand is only a means to an end, and that the end in question is increased sales.

My tweet had asked about sales. Not about brand.

Nearly a week later now, the stock has recovered in part, everyone has had their say, and some analysis shows a recent 31% rise in online sales. Well, I’m not surprised at that - that is a result of brand fans carrying out their duty. I still maintain that this campaign could hurt Nike sales over the mid to long term.

It is not because brands should not stand for things, and not because I don’t believe in targeting or appealing to one audience whilst ignoring another. It is because of the issue they have chosen to fight over, which is - and let’s be very clear about this - identity politics, not brand purpose.

Contrary to the assumptions made about me on Twitter, I actually have every sympathy for Colin Kaepernick kneeling. No-one wants their law enforcement agents to be criminals, no-one should put up with institutional racial hatred or inequality. And of all places, America is the place where one should be free to express one’s concerns in the most prominent of ways.

But, I also have sympathy for veterans who feel that the flag, the nation they fight to protect or defend, is under attack from a group of people who will never have to put themselves in harm’s way, who entertain a nation rather than defend one.

The last polling I saw on the issue showed that many US consumers feel the same. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released towards the end of August found that 54% of Americans believed that kneeling before the Anthem was inappropriate.

But a majority of voters also don’t believe NFL players who do kneel during the national anthem are unpatriotic (see quinnipiac university poll ). This suggests that voters - or consumers - understand the complexities of the issue and can in fact judge both perspectives fairly.

Of course, the polling splits down racial, generational and political lines. And that is what Nike is exploiting.

In a cynical 30th year anniversary celebration, Nike has taken an issue which divides people along demographic lines and, rather than creating debate and discussion about it, have used it to create further division. And that is, not as Mark Ritson suggests, targeting. It is tribalism.

It’s not that they featured Colin Kaepernick. It is that they made him the centrepiece and that they associated his actions with the notion of ‘sacrifice’. They will have known that this very notion is what servicemen and women do every day, and that the word would be incendiary to veterans and those in public service who put their lives in real danger.

Nike have poured oil on this issue and it is they who have set their sneakers on fire, not the republican white males for whom they seem to have so much disdain.

The mainstream press and commentariat continue to praise Nike for a brave and bold move, labelling the campaign ‘genius’. But that’s because they are working in the extremes, pointing to those who are burning their Nikes in protest as idiots and those who support the campaign as ‘being on the right side of history’.

I’m not really interested in those who love or hate Nike though, I’m interested in the mass market of people who lie in between those extremes.

Every audience is made up of 20:20:60. Twenty percent are already with you and your values or ideas. Twenty percent are against you, that won’t change. Sixty percent though are persuadable either way.

What Nike has done is force people, rather than persuade people, to choose an extreme position on an issue that we already see from polling is one where they have a finely balanced perspective.

That means that people who might buy their kids Nike for back to school or who are looking for a new pair of training shoes for the gym might not want to make a statement that could end in a real argument with someone on the street or in a school. They might buy Adidas or New Balance or even ASICS (from where Nike originated) instead. It’s just not worth the hassle. They are not part of a tribe. And they don’t want to be part of a tribe that attacks the police.

The Fraternal Order of Police put out a powerful statement in response to the campaign, saying that they knew they were being insulted and that: "Ultimately this ad campaign will end, and our nation will no longer associate ‘sacrifice’ with ‘sneakers’. Most people don’t want to be seen to insult all police. Better to swerve the Nikes until this all dies down.

Now, people will scream at me on Twitter that Nike is not interested in these consumers. But I don’t believe that. Any mainstream global brand cannot afford to turn off that sixty percent of an addressable market. It can operate as a smaller, still profitable, brand - but not as the biggest, most valuable one.

Truth is, Nike desperately needed to do something to attract attention. Adidas has, over the last three years, been eating Nike’s lunch, gaining ground and adding value. Adidas' stock is up around 220% and Nike's stock up around 50% over that time.

One thing Adidas has tapped into is universal causes for humanity - themes of togetherness, community and creativity all working to communicate a better, brighter future for a new generation. Adidas are moving their brand forward on the basis of a common humanity. It’s still a lifestyle brand but it has managed to include rather than exclude people with its communications and, as a result, grow its appeal.

There was a time when Nike were masters of that approach. When the purpose of Nike Women was to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies by giving young women more self-esteem through building up their sporting abilities. That was brilliant and priceless. Without degrading women, or men, the brand identified an issue, looked at its causes and found a way to insert itself into culture in a positive way. The Colin Kaepernick advertising is a long way from that.

People will tell me that the campaign is just another execution in a long line of traditional Nike ads that support a maverick and challenge the establishment, that this is no different.

It is different.

Nike needs to grab attention in light of Adidas’s marketing momentum, but all they will end up doing longer-term is tearing apart their own consumer-base"

In the past, brands would challenge each other. Remember the brilliant Mac v PC campaign in which Apple pitted a brand that was great with life-stuff against a brand that only did business-stuff. Or, Virgin, which relentlessly challenged British Airways on its service and even accused BA of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against it.

Challenger brands should, and do, undermine and accuse their competitors of wrongdoing or of having out of date values and ideas.

But Nike has not picked a fight with its competitors, it has picked a fight with consumers.

If you don’t support Colin Kaepernick’s statement that he has made a huge sacrifice and should be idolised because of it, then you, Mr Consumer, are on the wrong side of history. In a world in which morality rather than money now defines one’s status, Nike has launched the biggest virtue signal we have ever seen.

As David Brooks says in his New York Times article, quoting Pascal Bruckner: “What is the moral order today? Not so much the reign of the right-thinking people as that of the right-suffering... I suffer therefore I am worthy... suffering is analogous to baptism, a dubbing that inducts us into the order of a higher humanity, hoisting us above our peers."

Brooks is right when he says that the easiest way to define our own virtue is to tell a tribal oppressor/oppressed story and build your own innocence on your status as a victim: “Once you have identified your herd’s oppressor - the neoliberal order, the media elite, white males, whatever - your goodness is secure. You have virtue without obligation. Nothing is your fault”.

'Colin is good. His oppressors are bad. None of this is his fault'; an all-too-simple message from Nike, as false as it is true.

Tribal common-enemy thinking will tear apart diverse nations, and tear apart diverse audiences. Nike needs to grab attention in light of Adidas’s marketing momentum, and they have done that this week, but all they will end up doing longer-term is tearing apart their own consumer-base - and that will be when the commentariat end their obsession with talking about the brand, and start to look at the effect on sales.

Tracey Follows is the founder of Futuremade and writes each month for Mediatel


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